Strength-based parenting: How seeing the best in your child brings out the best in everyone

Strengths are a positive common ground where parents and kids can connect—you learn to see and appreciate the best in each other.

Strength-based parenting: How seeing the best in your child brings out the best in everyone

What kind of world would it be if we could fill it with people who have a positive view of themselves, who use their abilities to forge a successful and happy life and who help others do the same? I think it would be more peaceful, more productive, more beautiful and more fun.


That sounds especially attractive these days, as we waken daily to events that seem almost overwhelming. Will our children be adaptable and resourceful enough to navigate and find security in this fast-changing, uncertain world?

Most parents want to raise their kids to be optimistic, resilient, accomplished and caring toward themselves and others. But, our society has a bad case of "right intention, wrong direction.” We try to achieve positive ends through negative means: We criticize, push, cajole and nag our kids about their weaknesses and how they’re falling short of the mark—and end up feeling like bad cop, wet blanket and killjoy all rolled into one.

Are we so busy raising our kids to be the person society says they should be that we’re not allowing them to grow into the person they actually are?

The good news is that, as parents raising the future generations who will be charged with stewardship of this revolving wonder called Earth, we can directly influence the process, challenge these negative habits and do things differently.

The bonus: We’ll get off the criticism-go-round and have a happier, more harmonious family life.

Strength-based parenting is a new, powerful way to help you notice your child’s strengths and then find natural opportunities for those strengths to be developed—even as part of disciplining your child.

A strength isn’t just something your child is good at. Psychologists have defined three main characteristics of a strength: high performance, high energy and high use. A strength is something your child naturally does well, happily and often. So far, researchers have identified more than 100 strengths—from adaptability to zest—that can be measured and improved.

The key to becoming a strength-based parent is to form the habit of swapping the question “What needs to be fixed?” with “What strengths are needed to handle this situation?” I call it flipping the Strength Switch.

Best of all, you can start today—by noticing a strength in your child and having a conversation about it: Asking your child which of her strengths she might use to solve a problem she’s facing. Letting your child know you appreciate how his strengths help the family. Or doing the “what went well” exercise together by naming three things that went well for your child that day.

Three decades of science confirm the advantages of focusing on strengths. Strength awareness benefits our kids in four ways:

1. It helps kids reach their full potential

People at the top of their field—say, Pulitzer Prize winners or Olympians—don’t excel because they eradicated their weaknesses, but because they’ve learned to maximize their strengths. Our kids’ path to their personal best is through building their strengths. Focusing on weakness takes performance from a low baseline to average. When we focus on strengths, there’s no ceiling.

2. It builds kids’ well-being

Using their strengths to navigate the world is connected to increases in kids’ life satisfaction, confidence and positive emotions. In my research, children and teenagers with strength-based parents are less stressed, better at handling friendship issues, better at meeting homework deadlines, and get better grades—important counterweights to concerns about teen depression, bullying, and underachievement.

3. Kids improve faster when working on strengths

Psychologists call this the multiplier effect. Because our strengths have a genetic component, when we work on improving our strengths, we improve much faster and reach higher milestones than when we work on improving weakness.

4. It fosters a better parent-child connection

In one of my studies, parents felt happier and more confident after just three weeks of strength focus training. Strengths are a positive common ground where parents and kids can connect. You learn to see and appreciate the best in each other. That builds trust and affection. And when tensions arise, it’s easier to remember that your kid isn’t always like this.

Strengths awareness is gaining traction in society. More than 13 million people in more than 100 countries have taken strengths tests such as the Gallup StrengthsFinder, Realise2 and the Values in Action (VIA) Survey. More than half a million children have taken the VIA Youth Survey.

I’ve heard countless stories from kids of strength-based resilience, improved problem-solving, character-building prowess and family bonding:

Before searching for the negatives in something, I seek out the positives. The “what went well” exercise encourages me to do this. My family and I share three “what went wells” each night. My mom even uses it at work!

Learning my strengths made me think about my moods and how I can improve them to be a better person.

I used to let stress and anxiety consume my thoughts. Now I’ve learned to identify the cause of the problem and look for ways to address it.

… And from parents:

We did a strengths profile of our family and put it on the fridge. Now, we know our strengths I create opportunities for the kids to use their strengths at home. I ask Olivia and Jackson to use their zest to welcome guests, while Elijah’s judgment is used to rein in risk. The kids appreciate playing to each others’ strengths within the family.

I love seeing Will’s quiet confidence when he methodically tackles problems. We make eye contact and I see his almost imperceptible nod to say, “I’ve got this,” and my nod back that says, “I know.”

Once kids learn to see their strengths, they can start encouraging them in others. Perhaps with this special kind of awareness spreading through our communities, we can together make this world a stronger, more supportive place.

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